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4 February 2021updated 30 Jul 2021 10:48am

“Be honest about how bad things are for our kids”: Katharine Birbalsingh on why schools need to reopen – now

The outspoken head teacher warns that we are kidding ourselves if we believe online learning is achieving anything.

By Rachel Cunliffe

School’s out, until 8 March at least. The government announced on 27 January that pupils in England would not be returning after the February half-term as originally hoped, and set the second week of March as the new target date. 

That children across England will have lost a full eight weeks of classroom teaching – over one fifth of the school year – on top of the months missed during the first lockdown does not seem to worry Gavin Williamson. The Education Secretary declared in a recent speech to the Education Policy Institute think tank that the Covid-19 pandemic had “changed learning for the better”, and that aspects of online learning had proved an “unqualified success”. 

But according to Katharine Birbalsingh, the outspoken founder and head teacher of Michaela Community School, which is located in a deprived area of London, that attitude is delusional. 

“I think we’re kidding ourselves,” she says, when I ask how well remote lessons are going. “People think that busy work is learning and it’s not – it’s just work to keep them busy.” 

So far, much of the analysis on school closures has focused – rightly – on the most disadvantaged. That the Department for Education seemed utterly unprepared for the January lockdown and left a quarter of a million children without the devices and internet connection required even to attempt online learning should raise serious questions about Williamson’s suitability for his post. 

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But even when children do have the necessary technology, Birbalsingh thinks we’re naive to presume they’re actually learning much. 

“Let’s start with the most disadvantaged,” she says. “People think if you give them a device that they’re therefore learning. In fact, the device is a way of doing Instagram and Snapchat and WhatsApp, and so actually the device is the thing that undermines their learning.” 

Anyone who has tried to make a child concentrate while they have their phone will appreciate the challenge. And while some parents may be able to supervise their child closely, for the millions trying to juggle a job and home-schooling this isn’t possible. Children from single-parent households or crowded homes are especially badly affected. 

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Then there’s the lesson content. Again, Birbalsingh is candid. “Teachers can only plan to teach about 50 per cent of what they would normally teach because of the online restrictions. You have to spend so much time faffing around with the technology that you cannot teach the same amount. 

“So that’s how much they can teach. Now the question is how much do pupils actually retain. We’ve found that the kids retained about 20 per cent of what they were originally taught after the first lockdown.” 

For those brushing up on their maths: that means children learning just 10 per cent of what they’d normally learn at school. This might sound overly dramatic, but Birbalsingh continues to list the problems with online learning, including that it makes it impossible to test for understanding – to pepper questions around the class to assess how much pupils are taking in and reteach areas of confusion. In fact, because an online classroom has more pupils than usual (many teachers are in school with children who are vulnerable or have key worker parents), it’s difficult to know how many of those logged in are actually present. Tests and quizzes that “hold children to account” and ensure that their learning – and indeed confidence – builds over time simply aren’t happening. 

“It’s very one-sided, where the teacher is talking and the children are just listening,” Birbalsingh says. “Everybody knows that’s the worst possible teaching that you can have, because there’s no interaction.” 

[See also: The dunce of Westminster – Martin Fletcher profiles Gavin Williamson]

Parents may be aware that remote learning is far from optimal, but it is unlikely they realise quite how much their children are missing. Pupils are not just standing still – they are going backwards. A study from October found that this year’s cohort of Year 7s had lost 22 months of progress after schooling was disrupted in March – on average, they had the writing skills of a Year 5 pupil. 

Birbalsingh thinks everyone – parents, teachers, politicians – needs to be understand what’s happening. 

“The amount of time away from the classroom is multiplied in terms of the regression that takes place. The number of months of regression does not equal the number of months they’re away from the classroom. In fact, it’s doubled or tripled.” 

Is it possible to put a cost on the months of lost learning? The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) attempted to do so this week, and the result is staggering: £350bn. For each child – whom the IFS estimates will miss 5 per cent of their entire time in school as a result of the pandemic – that’s an estimated £40,000 in lost earnings over their lifetimes. 

“You’re considered to be a doom-monger if you say this stuff out loud,” Birbalsingh says – and she should know. Last week, she suggested the situation was so dire that the government should consider redoing the entire academic year. Her proposal was instantly shot down, and she acknowledges the challenges (that it would mean children starting school at age six instead of five forever more). But she insists that drastic action is needed, and that tinkering around the edges of the problem by using summer schools (“disadvantaged kids will never come, so all you’ll do is increase the divide between the rich and poor”), or pretending it doesn’t exist, isn’t good enough.  

“The upside to this is that once and for all we can put to bed the idea that technology could ever replace a teacher in a classroom. Clearly nothing can,” she says, in contrast to the Education Secretary’s boast of a “revolution in learning”. And while Birbalsingh doesn’t have a solution beyond getting children back into school as quickly as possible, her message for the government and the entire education community is to stop deluding themselves. 

“The key thing is that we need to be honest about how bad things are for our kids. There’s no point in talking about any possible solution unless we’re honest about what’s going wrong. 

“Whatever we need to do to get children back into school, we need to do it. Now.” 

 [See also: An urgent action plan to mitigate the damage of school closures]